We’ve all heard that saying. Along with ‘Beauty is only skin deep’ and other pointless sayings, it is supposed to teach us that the inner truth cannot be adequately conveyed through appearances alone.
But appearances are important, even idealists admit that…
The trouble is, a long time ago I decided that it is possible to judge a book, very accurately in many cases, by its cover. I worked in an Oxfam bookshop for years, and yes, it was possible to tell from a cover features like genre, target audience, age, and so on.
Let’s think about it. A pink book with shiny writing and a cartoonish picture of a fashion accessory or an improbably slim woman’s silhouette? A female-centric book, probably featuring a love triangle and difficult career choices, with a predictable ending. Image of a woman in forties dress/hairstyle against a dreary background looking wistfully at you? Period romance, probably Catherine Cookson or similar, fairly cheap and with a predictable ending. A black cover with a teaser line ending ‘or will s/he…?’ Crime or thriller. All black cover with a high heel or a pair of handcuffs? …I’ll tell you when you’re older. Put it down.
It’s obvious, really: publishers know that people browse shelves and pick books by sight, unless following up a specific recommendation. Therefore, they choose to make their books look similar to other books their target audience would have enjoyed, to use that familiarity to appeal to a ready reader base. People don’t often choose to read things totally outside their literary comfort zone, and therefore certain tropes of colour or image are used to appeal to the certain groups.
Not that simple
Of course, publishers may sell their book short. Just because a book is aimed at an adult female audience, does the cover really have to be pink or red? Is that picture of a handbag really relevant to the plot, or is it the stock image a lazy graphic artist pulled from the ‘women will like’ pile? The old Terry Pratchett covers (pre artsy black cover days) were a crazy riot of graphic-novel style exaggerated artwork, which put off many of my female teenage friends because it was meant to appeal to a different audience. Another issue is when books have been made into films: while some, like The Lord of the Rings, provided great images for use as cover art, others feature characters or scenes which look blatantly unlike the author’s description, and which I have to try to put out of my mind to let my imagination really be drawn into the world of the book.
To judge, or not to judge?
By all means, make assumptions about a book by its cover. Otherwise you would never make it out of Waterstones, but stay standing in baffled confusion staring at the incredible variety. Just don’t judge too hard. If you stick with the covers that look familiar and unchallenging, how will you broaden your reading taste? Just because a book isn’t aimed at you as a target audience, don’t let the publishers stop you from reading it! Look at reviews, ask friends, even order online without looking at the cover if you want a different way to approach things. Books can be better (or worse) than the key features summarised by the cover would have you believe. (Remember when they had to print an adult-looking version of Harry Potter so the grown-ups could read it on the train without getting embarrassed?)